Questions and answers concerning the situations created by the coronavirus in working life

Original version published 20 March 2020

 The lawyers of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers have compiled a list of ten questions and answers that contains useful information for our members. The situation is evolving continuously. New regulations and guidelines issued by the authorities will most likely continue to be introduced. These guidelines will be updated whenever necessary.

1.What should I do if I catch the coronavirus or have symptoms of a cold?

Employees should always go on sick leave if they are ill. Check your employer’s instructions to see how many days you can be off work sick based on your own report. Many workplaces have considerably extended this right for the duration of the coronavirus epidemic. If you are ill, you will receive sick pay in accordance with the collective agreement. If no collective agreement applies to you, you can receive compensation in accordance with the Employment Contracts Act and then KELA’s sickness allowance after that.

If you are a MELA-insured grant recipient, you can receive sickness allowance. Find out more on the MELA website.

If you suspect you may have the coronavirus, please follow THL’s instructions and tell your employer.

2. I have been officially ordered into quarantine. Can I get compensation?

Under the Communicable Diseases Act, a person who is ordered to stay away from his or her gainful employment, or is ordered into isolation or quarantine to prevent the spread of a communicable disease, is entitled to receive a communicable disease allowance as compensation for the loss of income, as laid down in the Health Insurance Act. The same applies to the guardian of a child under the age of 16, if the child is ordered for the reason stated above to remain at home, and the guardian is for this reason prevented from working. You can find out more about the communicable disease allowance on the Kela website.

3. I am a grant recipient. I cannot carry out research due to the coronavirus measures. What should I do?

The situation of grant recipients is extremely changeable and difficult. Some grant recipients are almost unaffected by the current situation – if they remain healthy and their research is not affected by the restrictive measures. In this case, you can continue to work as normal. Grant recipients should also seek to use remote connections and think of alternative ways to do research.

Unfortunately, the current coronavirus measures have made it very difficult for some grant recipients to carry out their research plans. If your source material is located in a foreign country or involves observing the behaviour of large groups of people, doing research may become significantly more difficult. We do not yet know how long the epidemic and the restrictive measures will last. However, it is a good idea to start preparing now for a situation where the measures imposed due to the epidemic become prolonged and remain in place for a few months, for example.

If it becomes significantly more difficult for you to do research, you should consider whether it would be possible to modify the research plan so that you would be able to carry it out despite the coronavirus restrictions. If you would have to completely rewrite your research plan, it would be a good idea to contact your grant provider to discuss your options.  It is often possible to move the grant term, for example, but in these cases the parties must consider how the grant recipient’s livelihood would be secured. Unfortunately, grant recipients are often unable to receive unemployment benefit because they are considered to be self-employed, and moving the grant term can cause unexpected interpretations of the regulations.

Grant-funded research is not carried out as part of an employment relationship and is not supervised or directed, even though a report about the work is submitted to the grant provider. However, good practice involves seeking to carry out the research project in accordance with the research plan or make justified changes to it due to the change of circumstances.

4. What temporary improvements in unemployment security have been implemented?

The exceptional circumstances have caused temporary changes to the unemployment security of those who are unemployed and laid off, valid from 15 April to 6 July 2020. The changes came into force retroactively on 16 March. The Government has made a proposal concerning the continuation of the validity of these changes in the Unemployment Allowances Act until 31 December 2020.

If the first day of the qualifying period for unemployment benefits is between 16 March and 6 July 2020, those who are unemployed or laid off are also entitled to unemployment benefits for a qualifying period of five days. This applies to both an earnings-related allowance and the basic unemployment allowance as well as the labour market subsidy paid by Kela.

Entitlement to earnings-related allowance requires meeting the employment condition and a membership of an unemployment fund. The duration of the employment condition for earnings-related unemployment benefits has been temporarily halved. The current requirement for meeting the employment condition is 13 weeks of employment if the normal condition of 26 weeks of employment is not met. One must have worked for at least one calendar week after 1 March 2020 and been in paid employment that accumulates the employment condition, and the earnings-related allowance’s first date of payment must not be later than 3 July 2020. It is thus possible to be entitled for an earnings-related allowance after three months of employment (13 calendar weeks). By default, new members of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers also become members of the Teachers’ Unemployment Fund if the new member is in an employment relationship when they join the Union. It is very important to be a member of an unemployment fund during the coronavirus pandemic due to the threat of lay-offs or dismissals.

Note! Remember to check that you have paid your membership fees, as this is a requirement for the payment of the earnings-related allowance!

Unemployment benefits for a lay-off which began on 16 March 2020 or later and that are paid between 16 March 2020 and 30 June 2020 are not included in determining the maximum period of paying the unemployment benefit. According to the Government’s proposal, the validity of this exception to determining the maximum period of paying the unemployment benefit would be extended to 1 July 2020–31 December 2020 and it would include all unemployed job seekers. In addition, everyone who has been laid off and registers as an unemployed job seeker currently has the exceptional right to unemployment benefits regardless of entrepreneurial activities or studies, for example. This change speeds up the application and granting process of unemployment benefit for laid-off employees studying alongside work or engaged in entrepreneurial activities. If a laid-off employee receives income from their entrepreneurial activities, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland (Kela) and the unemployment fund take the income into account when paying the adjusted unemployment benefit.

For further information on how the temporary changes affect your unemployment security, please contact Kela or the Teachers’ Unemployment Fund.

5. Can an employer order an employee to self-quarantine?

If an employer orders all or some of their employees to stay at home, the employer is obligated to pay the employees as normal for the duration of the order.

Employees will usually be able to work from home in such situations. University employees who are in a total working time system are already allowed to work from home without a separate agreement. For others, we recommend agreeing with your employer on remote work opportunities and practices as soon as possible.

6. My employer has issued instructions on how to protect against the coronavirus. Am I required to follow the instructions issued by my employer?

You should follow your employer’s instructions, especially for organising and arranging work tasks. If your employer has instructed you to deliver your lectures remotely, you should comply with this instruction. The employer is responsible for the safety of the workplace and occupational safety and health.

The employer’s right to direct employees does not extend to free time, which means that employers are not able to issue instructions related to employees’ free time. However, you should follow instructions issued by the authorities also in your free time, regardless of whether your employer requires you to follow them.

7. What should I do if I am in a risk group and know that others at the workplace have come to work while ill?

Employees presumably do not have the right to refuse to work due to being afraid of catching the coronavirus. However, employers have duties related to occupational safety and health also during the coronavirus epidemic. The employer is obligated to take the necessary actions to ensure employees’ safety and health at work. This means that the employer must take into account factors related to the work, the working conditions and the work environment as well as factors related to employees’ personal requirements. Please let your employer know in writing if you or a family member are in a risk group.

This will require your employer to follow the instructions issued by the authorities and do their best to ensure that the work environment is such that the coronavirus will be unable to spread there. The measures can include working from home as well as ensuring good hygiene and cleaning. Open-plan offices and multipurpose spaces are particularly challenging environments, and employers should think about how they can ensure that the physical distance between employees is sufficient if, for some reason, working from home is not possible.

Employers are recommended to agree on remote work with employees who are in a risk group. If working from home is not possible for employees in certain roles, we recommend temporarily assigning other duties to the employees. You should remember that even though there are duties that cannot be carried out remotely, things like meetings can most likely be done remotely.

8. Summertime

Employers do not have the right to tell what employees are allowed to do on their summer holidays even during the coronavirus pandemic. Employers cannot prohibit travelling for leisure, for example. However, it is good to note that, as a default, employees must be able to start working after their holidays as agreed in advance. The mandatory period of quarantine of two weeks after returning to the country of origin after travelling abroad is not a valid excuse to stay home from work, for example. Therefore, employees should plan their travels in advance and ensure that a possible quarantine period ends before they are due to return to work.

It is important to monitor the official guidelines issued by authorities and the information released by your employer concerning returning to work before your holiday ends.

9. Teaching in summer

Please note that employers must make an agreement about teaching and other extra work performed in summer with employees and pay a separate compensation for any such work. Learn more here (in Finnish): 

10. Working during the coronavirus pandemic

The staff of higher education institutions have primarily worked remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. The expenses of working remotely, including internet connection costs and any items purchased, such as a desk, chair or other similar items as well as using a home office are tax deductible when filling in the pre-completed tax returns next spring. Check the Tax Administration’s website periodically for new guidelines regarding tax deductions and remember to keep the receipts of any items or services you purchase.